Student support the key to success
Awatapu College in Palmerston North has been officially recognised with national awards for the quality of its academic and special needs support. It is this philosophy of care that it brings to its international programme.
Of 60 teacher aides employed by the school, four have a primary role ensuring the 30 international students succeed academically. Most of the aides have teaching qualifications, and staff are quick to emphasise that the focus is on academic achievement, not just student support.
The international programme is led by Dean of International Students and HoD ESOL Mary Cherian Matthews, who has been at Awatapu for 19 years.
She is known for her attention to detail and ability to be across every aspect of the programme, from being the person on 24-hour call for homestay parents, to producing 2 supporting curriculum documents for every class and prides herself on knowing exactly where every one of her students is, every period.
"Being a smaller school we are fully aware of what each student is up to - academically, socially and in their homestay,” says Mary.
She is quick to point out that while she may be the front person for the programme, she can only succeed with the support of her team.
Typically, the teacher aides look after cohorts of four or five students. Each student's activities are recorded daily in a logbook, which is read by Mary every night so she knows how each student is progressing. It may be considered impractical by schools with bigger rolls, but it's a key part of Mary's commitment to ensuring she knows what each student needs and can act promptly to ensure they get the support they require.
Former Director of International Students Zoe Codd, now HoD Student Support, says it is their pastoral care that sets them apart. And, as a regional college, without specific programmes attractive to international students, that pastoral care is their key selling point.
But, she says, because of the level of support required, and the commitment needed from staff to providing that level of care, having international students must be about more than just the income. “If you are taking in international students only to balance the budget, then eventually you are going to have an issue,” says Zoe.
The first international students arrived at Awatapu in the 1990s. In the peak of the international student “boom” when large numbers of Chinese came to New Zealand, Awatapu had up to 65 international students, mostly from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Now they average between 25 to 30 a year, about 5 per cent of the student population, which Mary says is a manageable number for their school.
Despite having had a long and successful international programme, it has only been in the last four years that the school has had to actively recruit students.
“Initially they came to us. We had Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean families who lived here and brought their family and friends to New Zealand to study. Then they set themselves up as agents and recruited big groups of students. We didn’t ask them to, they just did it. But we did pay them for it.”
This meant they had a steady stream of students who would often come for more than 18 months, from countries that are traditionally difficult to recruit from, and particularly difficult to entice to smaller centres.
Zoe says when she began, they did not have to seek students. “We had a big number of students, we didn't want any more! But we were aware it wouldn't last forever and we transitioned over a few years. Now Mary has to seek every student that comes into the school.”
In 2009, those local families retired from the recruitment business leaving Awatapu essentially starting from scratch to form networks and relationships with agents – and while they had students, they didn’t have a pipeline for the future.
Mary joined agent networks, attended Education New Zealand seminars, successfully bid to have agents visiting Auckland come south to Palmerston North, went to conferences in Australia and New Zealand and attended her first education fairs off shore. The challenge she had, and says she still faces, is determining which agents and fairs are going to have the best payback.
She says she finds it difficult to glean this information from other schools, because while they supposedly share information, they are essentially competing against each other.
She started by writing to as many agents in as many markets as she could get contacts for, and now has a group that responded and have shown continued interest.
“We cast our net wide. We had to; we were in a situation where we couldn’t just focus on one or two markets.”
The result is that instead of large groups from Japan, Taiwan and Korea, they have a broad base of students from 12 countries, including many Asian and some European countries, such as Germany, Italy, France and Czechoslovakia. This has its benefits, she says, as there is little “ethnic bunching” and students integrate well, and they are less vulnerable to a single market.
Awatapu is one of 16 institutions in the Manawatu education cluster but without funding from local government as other education collectives have, it is mainly a way of sharing information and contacts, rather than acting as a recruitment body for the region.
The collective has been helpful, says Mary, but the members tread a fine line between cooperation and collaboration and competing for the students who are considering studying outside of the main centres.
While some other schools may be skeptical about the value of education fairs, Mary says she has found fairs are an effective recruitment tool because she has the opportunity to promote the school and the region directly to potential clients, as many agents won’t promote schools outside Auckland. This is her biggest challenge she says, convincing agents to consider sending students to schools in cities outside the main centres. Bringing agents to Palmerston North so they can see what the city and the school has to offer is the most effective marketing they can do, she says.
She says they spend a relatively low 8 to 10 per cent of total income on marketing. Mary estimates that after staff costs - not always included in international programme budgets, some 30 to 40 per cent is invested back into the school.
Getting students on the right path
Peter Howarth works alongside Mary to provide academic guidance to the international students. He advises on course placement and ensures the students are on the right pathway to achieving their objectives. Setting them up in the right direction is important, he says, otherwise what they want and what they are achieving can get out of step. “We make sure we are not setting them up to fail.”
He says teachers welcome having the teacher aides in class alongside their international charges. “It’s great having an extra pair of hands in class. Most teachers appreciate any help they can get.”
He says teacher supports for special needs students is common so having teacher aides for the international students is a natural part of the class at the school.
The difference, he reiterates, is that the teacher aides have a specialised role focussed on academic progress rather than just helping the student. ”They are a critical cog in the working of the school.”
Their focus is catering for individual student’s needs. “The school has a reputation for that - not just for international students but right across the board.”
Megan McMullan and Judy Tate are two of the teacher aides who accompany students to class, assist with their work and ensure they understand what is expected of them. This close attention means the aide has a good grasp of the students’ abilities - which can range considerably.
If they think the students are struggling with the language, they can refer to the alternative, simplified curriculum that has been written specifically for international students. This special curriculum covers all the necessary topics but at a level of English the international student can usually understand.
As well as the practical one-on-one teacher aide support, students can take two standard ESOL classes a week - and additional classes if required. By the time they reach Year 12 they easily achieve at national standards, writing essays and giving speeches.
When the first international students enrolled in the early 1990s, they attended ESOL classes for local residents. When the roll neared 20, it was determined a dedicated ESOL teacher was required specifically for international students.
Other schools perceived to be more academically focused tend to attract the top students, says Judy. "We have more trouble getting our students up to a top level which is why we have the additional support."
Having international students at the school adds cultural diversity, says Megan. "It opens up the world for all of our kids. And they become very involved in the festival of cultures week, soirees we hold that the whole school is invited to. The other kids are really interested. One student held Mexican dancing lessons and got a lot of interest.
She says even if the student doesn't do well academically they might excel elsewhere. A Papuan student was good at soccer causing the other students to ask "where is Papua?" Judy Tate looks after homestay family visits as well as working as a teacher aide.
She visits all homestay parents and Mary makes a point of reading all the reports. They look for hosts with stable family relationships, who are willing to do things with the students, and live close to school and transport. They also check what sort of food they will cook and whether the house is warm - practical things that Judy says can make all the difference to a student’s experience in New Zealand.
Learning from experience
It is Mary’s own experience as an international student, traveling from Malaysia to America in 1978, that underpins her philosophy toward international education.
“Reflecting on what I went through as a student helps me in my role now. I had a good experience - but it wasn’t easy.
“What we want to give our students is a sense of belonging,” says Mary. Her aim is for them to feel welcomed and “connected” and personally makes sure they do from the beginning to the end of their stay. At orientation students are met at the gate and accompanied throughout their first weeks by a student buddy. When it comes time to leave, the student gets a treat from Mary.
She says she could not do her job without the support of her team and the other school staff. “I can’t be everywhere so I rely on the other staff to monitor student progress.” But there is a risk associated with having so much of the rogramme’s knowledge residing with Mary and this has been recognised. Resources are being reviewed, with the possibility of splitting her role.
“But you still need one person to front the programme. Agents want just one point of call. You have to have someone who understands it all so you can answer any question that may come up,” she says.
It’s Mary’s attention to detail and systems that has been very important to establishing a solid programme, says Zoe. “Whether it be ensuring the Code of Practice is adhered to, networking with agents, or making the most of any relationship.”
Wing Fung Leung is from Hong Kong. He chose to study at Awatapu because of its proximity to Massey University where he wants to study veterinary science next year.
It's been a good decision, he says, as he's had a wider range of subjects to choose from and more time for himself than he would have had at home. Palmerston North was also a good choice because it is safe and has proven less expensive than other cities would have been, he says.
Constanze Jakob came to Palmerston North after talking with Mary at an education fair near her home, in Hamburg. The small international student roll was an important drawcard. "There are not a lot of German students here and not too many international students.” While by the end she didn't want to return home, she said she had many ups and downs at the beginning. She was very homesick and changed host families. "When I was homesick and felt like I was about to cry, I could go to the ESOL rooms and feel like there was always someone there to talk to."
McKenzie Milne, Awatapu College Head Girl, is also an international 'buddy' student. A buddy takes their international partner out socially as well as accompanies them in their first weeks at school, and tries to welcome them into their group. "We try to make them feel like they are not intruding, not standing out.
"But sometimes they want a break, to talk to someone in their own language too."
She says the naturally supportive culture at the school means that students easily mix, even if they are different. "There's so much support, you always feel like there is help (available) if you need it."
- A high level of academic support to ensure students succeed academically is their point of difference.
- Being immediately responsive to inquiry from agents and students and their parents.
- Bringing agents to Palmerston North to experience what a smaller city and supportive environment can offer.
- Education Fairs can be useful to talk directly with students and their parents.
- Cast the net wide for agents and persevere until you build a relationship - don’t give up.
- Having one person who understands all aspects of the programme, who can respond to any inquiry.
- Having a simplified curriculum written to accommodate students’ English abilities.
- Knowing how each student is faring - in school and outside school.
Co-educational secondary school
30 international students
Tuition fee: $11,500 a year
Administration fee: $1250 one-off, per student
Homestay fee: $220 a week
Principal: Gary Yeatman
International Dean: Mary Cherian Matthews
Former International Student Director: Zoe Codd